Monday, December 31, 2012

End of the year stuff

Dec 31. Another year comes to end. Time for every two-bit hack to publish his/her "best of " lists. his formality is weary, but whatever. No reason for me to get left out.

Every now and then someone will ask me to give a few book recommendations. I enjoy talking about books as much as I enjoy reading them, so I don't need much excuse to write this list. Here is Universal Gravitation's very own "Best books in 2012", winnowed down from a number of books read across various genres.  Notice the little "in" in the title. These were books that I read in 2012, not ones that were necessarily published this year. I did a similar list last year too, so if you want more perspectives/recommendations, feel free to head over to that post .


Sunday, December 30, 2012

WTF pictures - Don't f@$k with Vespas

Saw this hilarious sign on the sleepy streets of Pismo Beach, CA:

This was outside local Italian restaurant Giuseppe's. Quite the protector of Vespa owners' rights, this Giuseppe.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Blisters, diarrhea and giants - an accurate roundup of med school

Merry (slightly belated) Christmas to you all.

(Happy Festivus if you are into that sort of thing.)

Meant to write pretty much everyday this month, but real life intervened in the form of OMG FINALS. If you spent the last three weeks frantically refreshing this page or kept re-reading past gems from this blog, I apologize profusely and sincerely. I am back now with fresh material to ensure this venerable little corner of the vast internet will not go unmanned (Or un-botted. You have no way of knowing if I am a highly proficient AI).

Recently concluded block numero tres of second year of med school. Only three more blocks to go before most of my classmates get shipped to the hospital wards and get presented with real patients with real illnesses.

This block's material explored interesting material and answered some critical questions. Like: what do you blame when your "hormones act up"? Is the pituitary gland really the "master gland"? Is there more to diarrhea than inconvenient trips to the shitcan? (Hint: yes) Can a skin rash be both macular and papular? Read on to find out.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

This week in ranting: why is the pancreas so presumptuous?

Welcome to the second installment of "This week in ranting". Here is first installment: The lung is a noob .

A little background before we get started: today we had a small group session devoted to breaking bad news. Usually these small groups are a colossal waste of time. People sit around holding hands singing the kumbaya and nothing of any significance gets done. This small group session was an exception. Delivering bad news to patients is a critical skill and although teaching it this early might not have terribly important retentive value, at least they are exposing us to these things. Long story short, we were supposed to deliver a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer to actors pretending to be patients.

In the midst of this session, it suddenly struck me that the pancreas is a freaking presumptuous organ. I mean look at it. What other non-paired, singular organ in the body presumes to seem and sound plural?

Ever hear the heart calling itself the "hearts"? No! Because that would be stupid. And arrogant. How would you feel if the brain woke up tomorrow asking people to call it "brains"? The brain is a pretty important organ, right? Yet you don't see it letting all this important get to it. You don't see its ego swelling to the size of a dirigible.  Look at the liver - the humble little organ that could (well actually the liver is one of the largest organs in the body, but let's roll with it). It sits there patiently and meticulously filtering out all the toxins you and I brazenly dump in our bodies. But you will never hear it saying it prefers to be called the "livers."

Why the pancreas then? This gnarly (no, literally. The pancreas is pretty tortuous) piece of tissue with the texture and feel of a giant chicken tender is a fairly crucial organ. It spews out digestive enzymes and also releases important things like insulin and glucagon so your body doesn't all of a sudden go into a coma due to swings in glucose levels. But unlike the vital organs like the heart, liver or the brain, this punk slab of cells swaggers around wanting its name to seem plural. An obvious case of plurality envy, if you ask me. It is clearly jealous of the lungs, the kidneys, the testes, the ovaries, the eyes, the limbs and so on.

So I looked into this a little bit more. Turns out some ancient Greek idiot named it the pancreas (meaning "whole flesh"). The plural of pancreas is pancreases or pancreata (yuck). Here's probably what actually happened: some Greek anatomist was looking at this yet-unnamed organ and was preparing to call it something sensible and singular. But this punk probably threw a tantrum and threatened to dissolve all organs around it with its enzymes. Faced with such daring thuggery, the Greeks promptly called it the pancreas.

So here I am, seething with rage and incredulity, while the pancreas prances around holding us hostage.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

WTF pictures - Eastern Poland is apparently THE place to invest and make money

 So here I was, flipping through this week's Economist, reading about exotica such as passing away of Britain's famous speaking clock (apparently in Britain you call a number and have a voice tell you the time of the day) and gerrymandering in Georgia (the nation, not the state) when I came across this gem:

This old man looks awfully grumpy. In all honesty, he looks like a hardass. If this is my future father-in-law...yikes.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Poem of the week - "I heard a fly buzz when I died" by Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, much revered today, was considered an oddball back in her time. She wrote without much care for such niceties as punctuation, capitalization and rhyming scheme. She was a very prolific poet, but only a mere handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. After her death the poetry world was blessed with the discovery of a trove of her unpublished work, nearly couple thousand poems.

Here's one of her most famous works. I love the sombre tone and the morbid nature of it.

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.
The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.
I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,
With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Random thoughts

Happy thanksgiving to you all. Quick hits to keep you going through this holiday break.

1. Survived what seemed like the flight from hell on Tuesday from St. Louis to LAX. Got stuck in the dreaded middle seat, was only two seats behind a wailing toddler and right next to a dude with a tiny dog in what looked like an oversized lunch bag. On top of that the plane just sat there, just chilling, on the runway for eternity. On the plus side I blazed through a novel during the flight. This one: Sense of an Ending .
    Pretty great (and short) read. I like novels that effortlessly blend philosophy with literature and this one succeeds at that.  Difficult for me to explain the "plot" because it doesn't really have one. It's just this dude Tony Webster who is looking back at his life reminiscing about the nature of memory and history and friendship and relationships. He ruminates about how one seemingly trivial decision on his part ended up changing the lives of four people irrevocably. If you are into literary awards (and scour literary blogs to check out the nominees every once in a while, like me), this one won the Booker prize.

2. Couple weeks ago I whined about how my friends forced me to buy a bicycle helmet and how it would spell the end of my days as a rebel bike rider. Well turns out I was wrong. The helmet is pretty awesome. When I walk around holding it, I feel like a goddamn football player. The closest I will ever get to that feeling, I suppose. Plus it keeps me warm when I fit it snugly over my beanie.

3. Speaking of football, thanksgiving offered some exciting football. The Jets embarrassed themselves in royal fashion in front of a massive national audience. This gif of Mark "The Sanchize" Sanchez fumbling the ball after running headfirst into his lineman's ass sums it up:

4. For the heck of it, here is one of my favorite paintings. It's called Wanderer above the sea of fog by Casper David Friedrich. Enjoy:

Friday, November 16, 2012

Poem of the week - "The secret sits" by Robert Frost

Not really a complete poem, more of a couplet. A friend sent it to me last week after we discussed some poetry in the gym while benching.

Here's Robert Frost:

The secret sits

We dance round in a ring and suppose, 
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Horsing around during a hurricane

Horsing around during hurricane Sandy, quite literally, is this guy:

Like a boss.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This week in ranting: the lung is a noob

Exams on Monday - heart, lungs and kidneys.

The more I learn about disease processes in the lungs, the more incredulous I get. Simply put, the lung is such a noob at fighting infections. I mean look at it. Almost every insult to the lung ultimately results in irreversible fibrosis and some weakass exudative stuff going on in the alveoli which ends up doing more harm than good anyway. All the reactive immune responses in the lung end up causing harmful granulomas. Every kind of terrible lesion seems to happen in the lungs. Pus? We got it. Abscess? Ooh we have multiple kinds of abscesses. Which one would you like? Necrosis? Again, such a wide variety to choose from! Unresolved, persistent infections? Check. 

You would think the body would do a better job at protecting such a vital organ that literally keeps you alive by dumping out CO2 for O2 and by sweeping out all manner of gunk that gets in. 

That's my rant for the week. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Random stuff

Random stuff that I want to talk about.

  • I have made no secret of my intense passion for bikes and biking. I have blathered about the topic several times, like here and here . This week my days as a glorious and proud outlaw came to an end. I surrendered my gritty, badass ways and agreed to abide by society's repressive laws. That's right. I finally purchased a helmet. For 10+ years I rode around unfettered, like an untamed majestic beast of the wild. Now after months of persistent pushing, both by friends and family, I am a rebel no more. Here is the heinous object that made it happen:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Starry starry night: musings on the tragedy of van Gogh

My good friend (let's call him PH) here introduced me to this gem of a song by Don McLean (he of "American Pie") last week. Most of you might be familiar with it; I wasn't. Now I am a hooked.

It's called "Vincent" and it's McLean's beautiful homage to the life of artist Vincent van Gogh.

McLean's voice is so clear and gentle in this song. And the lyrics. Oh man, the lyrics.

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls

Such amazing poetry.

This song set off a period of van Gogh obsession for me. After making an obligatory pilgrimage to his wikipedia page, I was astounded to learn how difficult and tragic his life actually was. Prior to this I always assumed he became famous during his lifetime and suffered from mental problems toward the end of his life due to mercury or lead poisoning.

Turns out he spent most of life as a failure, forever frustrated, both at himself for failing to achieve goals he set for himself and at the world for not reciprocating his earnest attempts to define it. Vincent was a veritable Europe-trotter, moving and staying in various towns and cities across multiple countries. He wanted to become a priest and enrolled multiple times in schools, but always found himself getting thrown out (once for being too spartan and austere - he slept in a stable because he believed he should suffer to enhance his piety). Periods of apprenticeship in art shops and schools also ended in failures.

Vincent wrote a lot of letters to his brother, an art dealer, and much knowledge about his life comes from those letters. He struggled with loneliness and terrible mood swings. He contracted syphilis (much like Nietzsche), which almost certainly contributed to the neurological symptoms later in his life.

But through it all, he kept drawing and sketching, down to the last days of his life. At age 37, after multiple visits in and out of sanitariums and asylums, he shot himself. Reportedly his last words to his brother were, "The sadness will last forever."

Monday, October 22, 2012

What's in a name: anatomy of a username

I often get asked where/how I chose my username. I use it across different platforms with some variation. Since I have nothing better to write about at the moment I decided to make a whole post about the genesis of my online handle.

Gather around kids! Grandpa has a story for you!

It's 1861 in Imperial Russia. The river Don is aflush with premium vodka. Tsar (czar/csar/tzar/tswhatever) Alexander II, perhaps taking a break from the vodka-drinking championship circuit, decides to set the serfs free. Freedom and equality for all! Bastille! Oh wait, that's French.

You can imagine the complications this causes. The old nobility, accustomed to sitting on its ass chugging vodka, is not happy. The old fogs are already annoyed with the kids these days. Those darn kids are learning European liberalism in their universities and schools. And now they have to deal with Alex's laws.

In this setting Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev pens what will become an enduring masterpiece. It has a boring name - 'Fathers and Sons'. It is received shittily by the critics. Embarrassed, Ivan drinks some vodka and leaves Russia.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Poem of the week - "Squattings" by Rimbaud

Continuing our theme of volatile, passionate and brilliant poets, today's installment is courtesy of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. I managed to snag an excellent used copy of his poems for just three dollars at the local bookstore recently. Rimbaud personifies young rebelliousness. Most teenagers/young adults will pout at needless social conventions or the forceful but irrational rule of authority and will stop once they hit adulthood. Rimbaud took to poetry. By age 20, he was dazzling those around him with his irreverence, boldness and arrogance. He died of cancer at just 37.

Following is one of his "milder" poems. I love his long, deliberative approach to the central act.

Here's "Squattings":

Thursday, October 4, 2012

UG Sports: Then there were three

The first four weeks of this NFL season were so crazy that the only way I can do justice to the craziness is to upend the modifier 'batshit' to crazy. Everyone and everyone's grandmother has written/ranted/spewed froth about 'Golden-gate', aka 'the one that was stolen from Green Bay', so I won't talk about the replacement refs at all. They are gone now. Let us all have the same poise as Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who phoned the guy who botched the call and left him a nice voicemail, telling him that although he didn't agree with the call (obviously), he thought the ref handled the issue with class. I will leave you with this parting gift, however. Too priceless to pass up:

Besides, there is plenty of other craziness to talk about.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Poem of the week - "A Cloud in Trousers" by Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky was a firebrand Russian poet who flourished in the early decades of the 20th century. A passionate and no-nonsense poet (he despised the idea of using flowery language), he was widely popular outside of the newly formed USSR, and toured extensively in the US, France, Germany and Britain.

Like many brilliant but volatile literary figures Mayakovsky suffered bouts of depression and agitation. He shot himself at 37.

"Cloud in Trousers" is a long poem that earned him widespread recognition. Here's the prologue from that poem. Mayakovsky's assertiveness and brash confidence can be seen clearly in many verses:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Badass Mathematicians - 2: Emmy Noether

(Part 2 of an occasional series where I profile some influential mathematicians. Part 1, covering the volatile Frenchman Evariste Galois, is here )

Emmy Noether was that special type of badass whose contributions to pure mathematics ended up becoming the impetus for much of modern physics. Before we get to that bit of badassery, some details about her life. She was born in Germany in 1882. Father Max was a mathematician also. Wikipedia tells me he names a couple theorems in his own right. Couple of her brothers got doctorates and such. In short, she was part of an academically inclined family.
What a badass bowtie

After going through routine schooling, where she was a pretty good student, she reach a dead end. Society expected her to become a teacher for girls' school. Noether had other ideas. The powers that be at her university saw great ills in allowing mixed education. They let her enroll grudgingly. Within a few years, she hammered out a fine PhD thesis titled "On Complete Systems of Invariants for Ternary Biquadratic Forms". Later she called it crap. Sounds perfectly fine to me, but hey what do I know.

Contemporary mathematical beast David Hilbert invited her to join him at Gottigen university. There, despite toiling hard as a superb professor without pay for the first two years, she produced some solid papers on topics well above my pay grade.

It was there she formulated the theorem that would propel her into the pantheon of badasses. Here's the statement:

"To every differentiable symmetry generated by local actions, there corresponds a conserved current."

Huh? What? Here is what it means in plain (relatively speaking) English: if a physical law does not change under conditions of space and time, it must have a quantity that is conserved.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Poem of the week - "Ulysses" by Lord Tennyson

Lord Tennyson patented the art of writing melodramatic poems depicting acts of great stoicism and valor. The same sombre tone permeates most of his poems. A sunny day's readings they are not - but then again, I prefer overcast skies over sunny skies anyway. Here Tennyson has taken the age old story of Odysseus (or Ulysses, if you have something against using Greek names) and made it into a manifesto of the worn but undefeated spirit. The speaker talks about suffering a lot and is in a nostalgic mood, but doesn't let any of this hamper his indomitable mind. Despite all his struggles, he is restless. He sees glory in seeking and striving for eternity. A bit long, but well worth the read.


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
that loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known---cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all---
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end.
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, my own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle---
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me---
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads---you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.

Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are---
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

UG Sports: Football's here!!!!

Aaaaah. That time of the year again. The air is thick with the stench of premature exams (I am glaring at you pharmacology) and failed experiments in lab. But then I pause, lean back, and take in the simpler pleasures of life. Rain, overcast skies, autumn. And FOOTBALL.

Two years ago, when this blog was still in its infancy and was still learning not to put toys in its mouth, I ran a weekly segment highlight major sports events. Did not keep up with that last year. But that's all about to change.

After a highly eventful offseason that saw the titillating  (Peyton Manning becoming the most coveted free agent in the history of football) to the droll (beast back MJD refusing to show up to work until a couple days ago) to the LOL (the Sanchize-Tebow circus is in town everybody!), the richest and the most badass sport in the world is ready to flex its biceps. Let this obstreperous (I'll wait for you to look it up) gentleman tell you all about it:

Now normally kickoff happens on Thursday. That's mandated in the constitution. But El Presidente is holding a party in Charlotte this week and is giving a speech on Thursday night. So the all powerful Emperor league commissioner Roger Goodell deferred, and with a wave of his wand declared Wednesday season opener.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Poem of the week - "Something" by George Harrison

Thought I would do something different this week. Obviously this is not a poem in the traditional sense, but the beauty of poetry lies in the difficulty of defining what exactly counts as poetry. I am normally ruthlessly dismissive of sappy and hokey love songs, but the simple lyrics are pretty powerful.

Here's George Harrison with "Something":

Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me

I don't want to leave her now
You know I believe and how

Somewhere in her smile she knows
That I don't need no other lover
Something in her style that shows me

I don't want to leave her now
You know I believe and how

You're asking me will my love grow
I don't know, I don't know
You stick around now it may show
I don't know, I don't know

Something in the way she knows
And all i have to do is think of her
Something in the things she shows me

I don't want to leave her now
You know I believe and how

And here's a clip of this mesmerizing song:

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Trumpeter with a mohawk - an evening out

I am huge fan of the St. Louis symphony. Its repertoire is broad and enjoyable, its performances warmly received, and its hall beautiful. Students are treated like royalty - for a measly ten bucks you can get a seat only a few feet away from world class pianists and violinists.

Last Tuesday the symphony awoke from its ritual summer slumber and put up a performance free of charge to kick off its upcoming tour of four European cities. Tickets were gone hours after being made available couple weeks ago, but I was agile enough to snag one for myself. At 5:15 pm I wheeled out my bike and pedaled over, taking special care to snootily sneer at the large "$10 for parking" sign outside the hall.

The musicians were tuning their instruments, shuffling chairs around, ruffling papers and all that jazz. It took me a few seconds to realize something was odd. Normally these people dress to impress. Somber, elegant black, faces placid and studiously bland. But today it was all about t-shirts, scruffy beards (as a connoisseur of facial hair, I have a keen eye for such things) and mischievous smiles.

And a dude in the back row brandishing a trumpet had a freaking mohawk!

This was awesome! I am always allergic to dressing up for classical music (in fact I ranted about it in this post a while back) because it makes the genre seem so pompous and stuffy.

Minutes later, the conductor bounded on the stage, also sporting a festive t-shirt.  Mayor Francis Slay spoke for a few minutes.

This was one of the best performances I have attended. The conductor made some nerdy music jokes before the start of each piece. There was a freshness to the whole performance. The audience enjoyed it immensely. We were treated to not one but two encores at the end.

The good people of London, Berlin, Paris and Lucerne are in for a treat this coming week.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Even if I am a school of medicine professor..." - showdown at orientation

Howdy. Our serene and mostly peaceful school has been recently hijacked by hordes of eager, goggle-eyed first-years. The firsties started orientation yesterday and a majority of them spent last week getting to know each other and the great city of St. Louis by participating in a community program.

Yesterday wise second years who are involved in various student-run groups were invited to give brief presentations (and by brief, I really mean brief. We were told not to exceed 45 seconds) to the firsties. Yours truly grabbed the opportunity and gave a smashing presentation. Standing ovation and all. Nah just kidding.

Anyway, that's not the story. The story is something that happened right before the event. Our benevolent school always provides enough Pappa John's pizza to feed an army regiment at most events like this. Since the welfare of students is priority numero uno, a bunch of stern guards admissions staff guards the pizza with great zeal and pride.

Perhaps tempted by the sweet aroma of the sausage pizza a faculty member stopped by. Now I know quite a bit about this dude, and he is a baller. Baller with a capital B. He is young, charismatic, creative, and insanely smart. He sauntered up to the lunch table and the following scene ensued:

Monday, August 13, 2012

Poem of the week - "One day a Woman"

This week's feature brought to you by Miller Williams who, wikipedia tells me, is from Arkansas and is known for reading a poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration.

One Day A Woman

One day a woman picking peaches in Georgia
lost her hold on the earth and began to rise.
She grabbed limbs but leaves stripped off in her hands.
Some children saw her before she disappeared
into the white cloud, her limbs thrashing.
The children were disbelieved. The disappearance
was filed away with those of other women
who fell into bad hands and were soon forgotten.
Six months later a half-naked man in Kansas
working on the roof of the Methodist Church
was seen by half a dozen well-known
and highly respected citizens to move
directly upward, his tarbrush waving,
until he shrank away to a point and vanished.
Nobody who knew about the first event
knew of the second, so no connection was made.
The tarbrush fell to earth somewhere in Missouri
unnoticed among a herd of Guernsey cows.

Pretty surrealist. Would fit perfectly in a movie trailer about supernatural happenings. 

Random stuff

I'll have another installment of 'Badass Mathematicians' up tomorrow, but in the meantime if you are hungry for more, here are some random tidbits from my life:

  • Feeling particularly like a boss right now. Mastered the art of riding my beloved bicycle without the use or need of my hands. That's right - I can now turn, swerve and roll around the streets of St. Louis on my bike AND read stimulating fare like this or this at the same time. (Both reads highly recommended, btw).
  • Visited Kansas City (unofficial motto: "We have a shitload of fountains and fat geese") last weekend. Great city, great food. A surprisingly large number of sex shops off the freeway en route, but hey, whatever floats your boat. There is an art museum with four GIANT SHUTTLECOCKS there. Easily the highlight of my day. Here's a pic of this bizarre sculpture: 

  •  Second year starts in a week. It's time to kick things into beast mode. Being a devout textbook nerd, this is my latest acquisition:

           I plan to read the whole damn thing (~1500 pages). Let's see how well that goes.
  • Not a big fan of sci-fi, but recently read "Foundation" by Isaac Asimov. Blew. My. Mind. 

Happy to be done with 100 degree weather for now...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Badass mathematicians - 1: Evariste Galois

Most people don't tend to think of mathematicians as being badass. Popular convention - so vigorously and boisterously propagated by the media - sees them as hapless dorks. Thick glasses, messy hair and awkward social skills, the world sees the prototypical mathematician as a portrait in pitiful meekness.

On the contrary, the most influential mathematicians throughout history were people with an extraordinary zeal for life and were full of contagious vitality and energy. Sure, a lot of them were shy or preferred to stay isolated, but that was because they preferred to spend their time working on equations, not wasting time engaging in mindless pleasantries. Most of them maintained a healthy interest in music and reading, and some even went as far as to host lavish parties at their houses to entertain their guests.

In this and the next few posts (probably one a week), I want to highlight the lives and personalities of some of the more "colorful" mathematicians throughout the ages.

Let's start with Evariste Galois.

This is Evariste Galois:
"My jacket collar beats your entire outfit!"

Poem of the week - "Kyrie"

Haven't done one of these in a while. Here's Tomas Transtromer (I have written about him here and here) again:


At times my life suddenly opens its eyes in the dark.
A feeling of masses of people pushing blindly
through the streets, excitedly, toward some miracle,
while I remain here and no one sees me.

It is like the child who falls asleep in terror
listening to the heavy thumps of his heart.
For a long, long time till morning puts his light in the locks
and the doors of darkness open.

Short, uneasy and bleak: just the way I like most of my poetry. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The greatest western blot machine west of the Mississippi

Readers of this blog: I want you to pause whatever it is you are doing (the redditing can wait till later) and take a brief moment (or two or three) to behold the greatest western blot machine west of the Mississippi, aka me.

For those uninitiated in the glorious ways of molecular biology, you might be scratching your head (or in some cases, that glaringly obvious bald spot), "What the hell is a western blot?"

Here's a brief primer (for those who get this lame pun, you can politely snigger): a western blot is an experimental technique used to detect proteins from sample/tissue/organ/cell/culture plate of your choice. Let's use me as an example. I roll into my research lab some time around 10:30, grind up tiny mice brains in a solution, do some hand waving - and voila! - I end up with some protein. Over the next few hours, I put my feet up and beast people around on Scramble with Friends, solve a couple crosswords and chug coffee. By some force of nature, the proteins are ready to be visualized on a digital imager the next day. And the cycle begins anew. Also, a bunch of rabbits and mice were probably bled to make the process work.

Friday, July 6, 2012

To bike is to live

St. Louis is a very bike friendly city. Roads are littered (probably not the best choice of verbs, but whatever) with proud signs saying "Bike St. Louis" with a little dude (or dudette) on a bike. There are numerous bike trails around the area. Significantly, there are at least three bike shops within a 3 mile radius. Although the bikes they sell are very expensive (the cheapest are around $300), just the fact they have $4000 bikes shows how serious biking is.

That's all splendid for me because I am a huge fan of bikes. Have been ever since I learned how to ride and earned my "badge of honor" in form of a nasty scar on the knee. I rode it to school for many years growing up in India, and even at UCLA lorded around the campus at odd hours. When my Diamondback got stolen the very next day I bought it, I felt like I was having an acute case of MI.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On Anger

I am now back in St. Louis working in my neurology/neuroscience lab. There is a lot of downtime when I waiting for western blots to get washed or brain lysates to get centrifuged so I have been doing a lot of thinking. Mostly about silly, abstract things. But if I didn't gleefully unload those ideas on my blog and inflict them on you loyal readers (I have quite a few by now), what purpose would this blog serve? Exactly.

So today's topic: what is the biological significance of anger? What is the neurochemical basis of it? In our neuroscience class we went on a whirlwind tour through various emotions and structures in the brain involved in mediating them, but this was more like window shopping. Despite the briefness of this tour, anger was never explicitly mentioned.

And that's weird. Anger is one of the most primal emotions/drives out there. It is rooted in human nature and ranks right alongside lust, hunger and hope. Yet it doesn't seem to serve any constructive purpose. Sure, cultures and creeds of all kind are replete with lores describing in detail the nature and consequences of wrath. Real history is full of examples of rage. But nothing useful has ever come out of this. In all these stories and real life examples, very bad things have resulted from anger.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Some song that I used to know

Lame pun alert! You probably figured out what this post is about just by reading the title. If not, well you should lay off whatever it is you are enamored with right now.

Anyway, I am not normally a fan of these sappy, lovey-dovey type songs with high vocals. The exaggerated agonizing gets to me. For whatever reason, though, Gotye's "Somebody that I used to know" has struck a chord with me (another lame pun!). Maybe it's his voice, maybe it's the slow beat in the background. Maybe it's the plaintive but resonant lyrics. The song has been stuck in my head and I listen to it (and the Glee cover version - which is good in its own right) an average of two times a day. Lately whenever I tune the radio to 102.7 I seem to catch the song there too.

Here's the official version from his vevo:

Monday, June 4, 2012

Year end

Last post was more than a month ago. Sort of understandable as I was pretty much held hostage by neuroscience (or, if you are Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, neural science). Could only wiggle out of its hold by learning a shit load of information and passing a test. That test also marked the end of my first year in med school.

[Take a moment and pretend I wrote up a bunch of cliches about how fast time flies, and how only yesterday was I blah blah]

Currently enjoying the remaining two days of my brief break before I report back to duty in my research lab in St. Louis for summer research. A friend messaged me couple days ago asking if I could do a brief retrospective on my first year (specifically for the non-med school readers) and posed a bunch of questions. That's as good an excuse as any to get me back to this blogging thing.

  • What was the worst part of it? You know, this is a difficult question to answer because overall, I enjoyed the experience. There were moments that left me pretty exasperated and desperately in need of a walk (things like memorizing tracts or nuclei of nerves, for example), but in the grand scheme of things, it was nothing.
  • What was the best part of it? Anatomy. A while back I wrote in glowing terms about anatomy. Good stuff.
  • How did you keep sane? That's easy. Med school (first year, at least) didn't pose the threat of driving me to insanity. I found myself having loads of free time on my hands, and made good use of it. At various points in time, I picked up quirky hobbies. Read a lot. Wrote here and there. Made friends. 
  • Was it as difficult as people say it is? The previous answer touched on this. Not difficult, just requires you to digest more information in shorter time than in undergrad. 
  • The most surprising aspect? How much stuff there is to know before we can get even remotely competent to start seeing and treating real patients. I mean before going in I knew I have a long way to go, but I was still surprised by my own staggering ignorance.
  • The thing people may not know about med school that you'd want to share? Med students are pretty normal people, just like you. They have the same desires, interests and quirks. They like to celebrate occasions, party and enjoy life just like any other breed of students. 

Saw these bumper stickers on one car while driving around town:

"Ignorance killed the cat. Curiosity was framed."

"I get enough exercise pushing my luck."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hallucinating using ping-pong balls and static

I am tremendously fascinated with subjects like optical illusions and hallucinations - phenomena that distort reality and trick the brain into "thinking" or "imagining" things that aren't true or even there.

Yesterday I stumbled upon an article that described an interest experiment (first performed in the 1950's to test theories on ESP and other assorted mumbo jumbo) that leads to pseudo-hallucinatory experiences (why I use the term "pseudo" will become clear in a moment). Since I am not a prominent member of a rock band and generally like to follow the law, this was my one golden opportunity to engage in some groovy mind-altering activity in a G-rated manner.

The experiment (called "Ganzfeld", German for "entire field", if wikipedia is to be believed) is tantalizingly simple and requires hilariously low-tech equipment:

1. One ping-pong ball

2. A pair of headphones

3. Some device that produces static noise

4. A lamp

First, cut the ball in two and place the two halves on both eyes. Next, start the static noise (some helpful soul posted 11 hours worth of white noise on youtube here) and plug in your headphones. Turn your face towards the lamp, lie down and relax. Here's a cartoon dude (presumably dreaming about rainbows and a bearded man) demonstrating the procedure:

Now before I delve into my own experience, a word about the mechanism. Unlike (highly) illegal drugs like LSD, which work through receptors and whatnot, the ganzfeld experiment works by "fooling" the brain or compelling it to "fill in the gaps" by depriving it of proper stimuli. The ping-pong balls force your eyes to look at a uniform white field and the static saturates your ear with sound of one frequency. The brain freaks out and frantically starts churning out random halo-like images to compensate. In this sense, what the user witnesses are not real hallucinations (now that's an oxymoron, if there was one), but extreme visual distortions that we can call pseudo-hallucinations.

So I trotted out to Walgreen's, purchased some ping-pong balls (the employee there mistakenly thought I was interested in buying a beer-pong kit, which I assured her I wasn't) and came back home. I turned off my phone, cranked up the static and plugged in my super sweet Audiotechnica headphones. One ping-pong ball sacrificed for the noble cause, I was ready to go.

As my body started to adjust to the conditions, I began relaxing. Within 10 or so minutes, I began seeing weird shapes and started feeling a sensation of being rocked gently, as if on a boat. Pretty soon, I started seeing weird stuff: tissue samples from histology, rotating hands, people shaking hands, a woman descending a staircase, a dog running up to a man to lick his hands, a bunch of people surfing on waves....

I slipped into a dream-like state and saw Shawn and Gus from the TV show Psych. I also saw a bunch of people playing chess and, perhaps the strangest apparition of them all, the umbrella lady from the following painting:

I also saw myself on the roof of some tall building which was engulfed by massive sea waves in seconds. Each image sort of appeared in the middle of my visual field and dissolved. After about 20 minutes, I took off the balls and unplugged the headphone. I staggered to the sink to wash my face, still in a bit of daze.

Definitely a very illuminating experience.

Friday, April 20, 2012

April aardvarks

If you came here looking to read about aardvarks, sorry to disappoint you. I needed a gimmicky title. Just so you don't leave angry at me and at life, here's a picture of everyone's favorite aardvark Arthur, sporting one of my favorite outfits:

Moving on. Currently we are three weeks into the third and final block of first year. Neuroscience is the flavor of the month (or rather, the block).

First day of neuroanatomy lab, we were handed a bucket with a brain sloshing in formaldehyde, a rusty set of dissection tools, and a giant-ass steak knife. What a beautiful knife. I couldn't stop staring at it. So when the time came to chop the mushy brain into half, I wielded the beastly looking thing and went to work. The first thing I realized is the brain is disturbingly soft and food-like. Brain slices look like banana bread from a distance and one of my classmates even went as far as comparing it to a steak.

Having never taken neuroscience before, this is mostly uncharted territory for me. But I have found I get easily excited by G-protein coupled receptors, signaling cascades and ascending somatosensory tracts, so this has been a very fun journey. Nothing like a good view of lateral geniculate nucleus to brighten the day.

Enough about academics. In the past four weeks, I read five books - a pace I have not been able to match since my senior year of high school. To take up more space and give this blog post some more substance, here are capsule reviews of each:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Poem of the week - "Face to face" by Transtromer

I blogged about the genius that is Tomas Tronstromer once before. My classmate has lent me a collection of his poems and I have been gorging on some good TT. Here's one that caught my eye.

Face to face

In February living stood still.
The birds flew unwillingly and the soul
chafed against the landscape as a boat
chafes against the pier it lies moored to.

The trees stood with their backs turned towards me.
The deep snow was measured with dead straws.
The footprints grew old out on the crust.
Under a tarpaulin language pined.

One day something came to the window.
Work was dropped, I looked up.
The colors flared. Everything turned round.
The earth and I sprang towards each other.

So simple and beautiful. Love the line "Under a tarpaulin language pined".

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Havings some fun with immunology

Immunology was easily the most interesting class this block. Granted the material wasn't all that new to me (I took it in undergrad), but there is something about the complexity, scale and harmony of the immune system that makes me a mellow romantic each time I encounter it. The immuno department at WashU is top-notch, stacked with all-star talent, and that played a role in making the class fun as well. Plus, the coursemaster very generously pitched in to host a giant superbowl party (see what I did there?) in the main lecture hall.

True to form, the immuno final exam (the last one in a long week), which was last Friday, offered us a golden opportunity to be creative and have some fun. The very last question on the test was: you are designing a video game marketed to pre-med and med students whose goal is to teach immunology and make it seem fun. Explain why immunology is so important to the curriculum and professional careers of med students. Give your game a name.

As soon as I saw this question, the creative juices started flowing as if a million myoepithelial cells were squeezing the juice out through the duct. Here are some snippets of what I wrote:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Crossword solving: a frontier that computers still cannot 'cross'

That computers are good at beating humans at certain games has been known for a while. Ever since IBM's proud brainchild 'Deep Blue' defeated chess maestro Kasparov in the mid-1990s, there has been a sustained interest in developing meaner and better machines. IBM hogged the limelight once again last year by unveiling trivia-playing beast, 'Watson' and making it compete against Jeopardy! contestants. Watson did very well for itself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A gleeful farewell to the land of pink and purple blobs

Join me today in gathering on this festive occasion to say a definitive goodbye to histology, the dark and murky realm of pink and purple blobs. Studying histology was like being adrift in a stormy ocean in a tiny rubber lifeboat with barely a day's supply of food. After staring at epithelia and glandular stroma for a couple hours, everything blends in and pretty soon, it's like being on a bad acid trip, or so I am told.

Here are some things that I was made aware of in the last few months:

Monday, March 19, 2012

I want to be ambidextrous

Why not? I have two hands, barely use one of them. The instances where I use both hands are ones I can count on my fingers (which, incidentally, is one of those instances): holding a plate/tray, tying my shoelaces (which a friend here insists I am doing all wrong), typing, riding my bike, flipping open an eppendorf tube in lab while pipetting stuff in or out.

My poor little left hand must surely be resentful of all the work the right hand gets to do. After all, it has the same muscles and is fully capable of the same sort of work the rightie does. The idea is to start slow and gentle - brushing teeth, opening doors, turning knobs - before graduating to attempt writing with the left. Practice, of course, is the key.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Poem of the week - "Ozymandias" by Shelley

Today we march into the land of familiarity. Most everyone has encountered this masterful sonnet written by a 26-year old Percy Shelley. Just because a poem has become high-school of Poetry 101 staple does not dilute its importance or its beauty. So sit back and enjoy the ride that is "Ozymandias":

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why do I need to dress up for classical music?

I am a big big fan of classical music in all its glory and magnificence. Be it the quiet yet forceful presence of a Chopin etude or the grand opulence of a Shostakovich symphony, each piece is a profound experience in and of itself.

I've been to many concerts, both back in LA and here in St. Louis, taking advantage of generous student discounts. And every time I get into a discussion about my sartorial choices. You see, I refuse to dress "up" for classical music. Instead of busting out my neatly pressed dress-shirt and red striped tie, I show up in my day-to-day outfit: jeans, sweater or a jacket, and a shirt.

I've asked many times why it is necessary to dress up for an event like this and have never received a convincing response. Here is a sample of responses I normally get:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Poem of the week - "Knowledge" by Philip Memmer

I had not heard of Philip Memmer before this poem. A friend posted this poem on facebook, and I really liked it. Don't have anything more to add since I don't know much about Memmer or his style.


My philosopher friend is explaining again
that the bottle of well-chilled beer in my hand
might not be a bottle of beer,
that the trickle of bottle-sweat cooling in my palm
might not be wet, might not be cool,
that in fact it’s impossible ever to know
if I’m holding a bottle at all.
I try to follow his logic, flipping the steaks
that are almost certainly hissing
over the bed of coals – coals I’d swear
were black at first, then gray, then red –
coals we could spread out and walk on
and why not, I ask, since we’ll never be sure
if our feet burn, if our soles
blister and peel, if our faithlessness
is any better or worse a tool
than the firewalker’s can-do extreme.
Exactly, he smiles. Behind the fence
the moon rises, or seems to.
Have another. Whatever else is true,
the coals feel hotter than ever
as the darkness begins to do
what darkness does. Another what? I ask.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I sold my precious urine for $20

So here's how it went: I met the guy in a parking lot, took a vial out and quickly exchanged it for a crumpled twenty....

Obviously that's not how it happened. That would be too easy and too convenient.  Brace yourselves for the real story. If you are squeamish or weak of the heart, close the browser window now (or maybe you were about to do that anyway).

I surmounted unfathomable obstacles to win this rare honor. I had to vault over a herd of overeager first-years to grab this opportunity. I crushed hopes, mangled dreams on my way to the finish line. Bloodied and bruised but my spirit unbowed, I picked up the pen and signed myself up for a urine study sponsored by my renal physiology professor. Somewhere in the background, the "Rocky" theme song began playing spontaneously. Wiping the sweat off my glistening forehead, I sauntered out of the class like a champion, savoring the ruined landscape around me. And that is how it really happened.

Join me on Monday when I, along with 11 other vicious warriors from my class, piss every 30 minutes for 2 hours and give 4 10 ml samples for analysis. All for a $20 gift card to Panera. A lucky competitor will win an additional $20 for having the most concentrated urine.

Here are the tools of the competition: a beaker, a plastic test tube and a dropper.

Lethal weapons

Here are the rules:

1. Wake up Monday morning and measure volume of urine. Take 10 ml sample to class. DO NOT consume any liquid or food between then and class. Diuretics are forbidden.

2. Participants will be divided into three groups in class: dehydration, isotonic saline, and water. Each will consume (or not, if he/she is in the dehydration group) an amount of liquid proportional to one's body weight.

3. Every 30 minutes, each participant will visit the bathroom (or do it under a blanket, as was suggested by our professor) and bring back a 10 ml sample. A total of four samples will be collected.

4. Everyone will receive a $20 gift card to Panera (or St. Louis Bread Co., as it is known here) for his/her graciousness and magnanimity. 

4. Results will be announced on Thursday. One with the most concentrated urine will be crowned champion for eternity and get exclusive rights to be called "ratboy" or "ratgirl" (apparently, kangaroo rats have very concentrated urine). The others will weep with despair and will be in a state of inconsolable grief.

Are you ready? I know I am.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What's happening this week

Here's what's happening, man:

  • Girl Scouts cookies go on sale!!! (For the record, that is the most number of exclamation points I've ever used in my life in a single sentence) In less than four days, I will be able to stock up on Thanks-a-lots like there is no tomorrow. Starting tomorrow you may find me camped outside the local precinct. I am telling you, the very first box of cookies sold in the entire St. Louis metro area will be bought by me. Gotta get the fresh goods. Gunning.
  • Swing dancing. Coerced by a couple of my classmates and by my curious mind, I caved in and finally attended a swing dance session last Thursday. I was terrible on the floor and kept apologizing every two minutes for my colossal ineptitude. Swing dancing (supposedly the easiest form of ballroom dancing to learn) is tougher than med school (at least right now) but it also has the potential to be a lot more fun if I practice hard. Kinda looking forward to the second session this week. 
  • I developed an interest in photography back in Dec 2010 and since then, I have taken quite a few pictures in different settings. Most of them have been seen only by friends and family. Starting tomorrow, two of my photos will be part of the WashU annual art show. Faculty and students submit their artwork and it is displayed for a month in the main atrium of the med school building. Here's one of the pictures I submitted. I took it during my road trip to northern California during last year's spring break.

  • Take home exam for physiology. The entire concept of take home exams may be foreign to undergraduates accustomed to high-pressure exams where every point counts towards the almighty grade. I've never taken a take home exam (hey two forms of take in one sentence!) before, so I am curious how this will be. We are currently studying respiratory physiology, which is dreadfully boring and severely counter-intuitive at times. I guess not having the stress of taking an in-class exam will be nice.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"My funny valentine" by Miles Davis

Miles Davis was a pioneering jazz musician, trumpeter of highest caliber and an all-around badass. His innovations in the field of jazz inspired generations of musicians and have triumphantly stood the test of time. Davis swayed millions through his soulful instrumentals and maintained a famously flash lifestyle off the stage, riding around in Porsches and sporting stylish sunglasses.

"My funny valentine" is a well-known jazz standard that had been recorded many times by many different people before Davis recorded his take on it. Regardless, it sounds fresh. I like the arrangement of the piano (and the prominent part it takes towards the end) and the sombre interjections of the trumpet played by the master himself.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Anatomy professor stealing computers and other weird dreams

Dreams. Topic of many senseless treatises, utterly worthless books and countless superstitions. Everyone from Sigmund Freud (dude, sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, ok?) to your best friend from fifth grade has tried to interpret these wisps of memories, with equal part trepidation and giddiness.

The funniest dreams are ones loaded with outrageous events. Events you 100% know would never ever happen in real life - even if pigs started flying and the sun came out in the west. Other interesting ones include those where I can tell I am in a dream with certainty but am still eager to see how they end.

It is always interesting to me to go back and try and reason out the dream. What piece of my daily life inspired this dream? Was it the conversation about Dexter that created a serial killer dream? Did the burrito I had for dinner made me dream about going to a crappy Taco Bell?

Here are couple recent ones that I thought were fantastically absurd:

Poem of the week - "Wires" by Philip Larkin

Taking a break from Borges this week. Philip Larkin was a British poet and a somewhat morose, dude. Most of his poems deal with issues like getting old, forgetting things, and other such tragedies of life. Larkin didn't publish much in his lifetime and his entire production of poetry has been published as a slim book.

Without further ado here is "Wires":

The widest prairies have electric fences,
 For though old cattle know they must not stray
 Young steers are always scenting purer water
 Not here but anywhere. Beyond the wires

 Leads them to blunder up against the wires
 Whose muscles-shredding violence gives no quarter.
 Young steers become old cattle from that day,
 Electric limits to their widest senses.

Short, jarring ("muscles-shredding violence"), and downright gloomy. Just the way I like I poetry.